It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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17,500 words or more

A few weeks ago in a review of Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ – see here – sf critic Paul Kincaid mentioned it was one of his favourite novellas. He also provided a link to an earlier post on another blog giving his favourite science fiction novellas – see here. So, of course, I started thinking about a list of my own… and immediately hit a couple of snags…

I like the novella, I think it’s an interesting length. It gives you the freedom to experiment you don’t have in a novel, and the room to experiment you don’t have in a short story. The four books of the Apollo Quartet are novellas, and I plan to write further at that length. But. Novellas are not as common as short stories – because they’re harder to write and harder to sell – and, as I tried putting together a list of ten favourite novellas, I discovered that few of them are all that memorable. It’s likely down to pure numbers: I’ve read so many short stories that I can quite easily think of ten which have stayed with me over the years. But ten novellas? Have I read enough for a critical mass of favourites to form?

The first few choices were easy. But then I had to resort to various collections and anthologies to prompt my memory. I also discovered that some of my choices were actually novelettes…

I hate the novelette.

It is a completely useless category. According to the Hugo Awards, a short story is up to 7,499 words, a novelette between 7,500 and 17,499 words, and a novella between 17,500 and 39,999 words. Anything over that is a novel. Back in the day, magazines apparently offered different pay rates for short stories, novelettes and novellas, and some magazines – well, Asimov’s and Analog – still list stories by category in their table of contents. But the novelette as a category serves no useful function for readers. There are short stories and there are novellas. Why do we need something in between? So the Hugo and Nebula Awards can hand out more awards to the voters’ friends? Most genre awards only have a short fiction category, they don’t even make a distinction between short story and novella…

But, as I said earlier, I like novellas, and I think it’s important to recognise them in the annual awards merry-go-round. But, please, kill the novelette. Expunge it, exterminate it, marmelize it, remove it from every ballot and magazine TOC.

Anyway, my favourite novellas… After some research, I managed a list of ten, all of which were categorised as novellas by isfdb.org. But restricting myself to stories of 17,500 to 39,999 words meant I’d been forced to chose some novellas I would be hard-pressed to call favourites. So I thought, sod it. I don’t care if some of them are novelettes. I reject the bloody category anyway. Which is how I ended up with the following ten novella/ettes…

‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1959)
One of the things about a favourite piece of short fiction is that you can remember where you first read it. This was in an anthology called The Future Makers which I was given as a present one Christmas or birthday back in my early teens. The story itself is a piece of spy fiction with added aliens, and there’s something about its 1950s thriller template that makes it more memorable than it would be otherwise. It was also published separately as a novel under the same title.

‘Empire Star’, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Delany was one of my favourite writers during my teens and twenties, and I read everything by him I could lay my hands on. Dhalgren remains a favourite novel. But I remember being really impressed by the Moebius strip-like structure of this novella when I first read it. And it still impresses me on rereads. I first read it as one half of a Sphere double with ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, and I’m pretty sure it was while on holiday in Paris with the family in the early 1980s.

‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading one of his Eight Worlds short stories, but I can’t actually remember when I first read him. Having said that, ‘The Barbie Murders’ is not an Eight Worlds story but an Anna-Louise Bach one – although like many of the former, it’s set on the Moon. There is something very creepy about the story’s central premise – a cult in which all the members have had themselves surgically remade to resemble Barbie; and Varley uses this idea to ask questions about identity. I also think this is one of those stories which exists in that Schrödinger’s-Cat-like area between utopia and dystopia.

‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
I read this is The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Seventh Annual Collection, and it’s probably the premier work of time paradox fiction in the genre. It originally appeared in an author collection, Novelty: Four Stories, and has even been published as a standalone novella.

‘Identifying the Object’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
This story (it’s one of ones on this list that’s actually a novelette) first appeared in Interzone #42, December 1990, under the title ‘Forward Echoes’. It’s the story that turned me into a collector of Gwyneth Jones’ fiction, Later, she amended it and it was published under its new title as the title story in a chapbook by Swan Press of Austin, Texas. The story takes place in the same world as Jones’ Aleutian trilogy, Buonarotti stories and Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant.

‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
I first read this in the collection Four Ways to Forgiveness, and of the four novellas in that collection, it’s the one that stood out the most for me. There are a lot of stories set in the Ekumen which could have made it onto this list, but most of them aren’t really long enough to qualify as novellas.

‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
I read this in the issue of Asimov’s in which it appeared, March 1996. In my contribution to the Acnestis APA a couple of months later, I described it as “brilliant” and wrote that “if it doesn’t get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula, then there’s no justice”. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Hugo as a novelette and the World Fantasy Award as a novella (which proves my point above), and shortlisted for the Tiptree.

‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
Science fiction is full of Big Dumb Objects, from Niven’s ringworld to Clarke’s Rama, but most are associated with quite dull pieces of fiction. Reed’s ‘Marrow’ is told with a very clinical, detached voice, which only heightens the impact of the BDOs which furnish this novella. There’s the Great Ship, a slower-than-light starship the size and shape of a gas giant, and there’s the title world itself, which exists at the core of the Great Ship. This novellas was later fixed up into a novel of the same title.

‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
When I first read this in Interzone #124, October 1997, I characterised it as one of Watson’s occasional completely-off-the-wall stories, the ones he churns out every now and again that are even more bonkers than his usual output. It’s about jigsaws, Vidkun Quisling, Nazi occultism, and getting naked in an Oslo park. I liked it a lot, and it was certainly memorable. And then it re-appeared as the first section of the novel Mockymen, and it seemed even more mad, and I liked it even more. It reads like fantasy, and to use it as the opener for a sf novel (about aliens invading Earth) demonstrates such an insane view of genre that it’s hard not to admire its brazenness.

‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
I read this as a standalone chapbook published by Phoenix Pick, which I’d purchased after being mightily impressed by Gilman’s fantasy Isles of the Forsaken. I reviewed ‘Arkfall’ for Daughters of Prometheus – see here – and yes, its setting could almost have been designed to appeal to me, but it was the social world-building Gilman does in the novel that, I think, most impressed me. It is certainly a novella that has haunted me since I read it.

So there you have it, ten pieces of long short fiction of novella-ish-type length. I suspect if I were to try the same exercise a couple of years from now I might come up with a slightly different list. But this will do for now. And I’m serious about getting rid of the novelette.

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Festive activities

Christmas is over for another year, and life can now return to what passes for normal. Once again, I was in Denmark for the festivities, but this year it was wet and windy rather than the usual deep snow. There was a lot of eating involved, and a lot of walking. The day after Boxing Day, we went to see David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the cinema (English with Danish subtitles, fortunately). Though I’ve not read the book, I have seen the Swedish version of the film. To be honest, I’m not sure which of the two versions is the better.

The flight back from Denmark was… interesting. On the approach to Manchester Airport, the plane was thrown around by turbulence and we almost touched down… before the captain decided to abort and up we went for another go around. Fortunately, the second attempt was much smoother and we landed in one piece. I first flew in 1968 and I’ve flown at least once a year since, and that was the first time I’ve ever been in an aircraft that took more than one attempt to land. Having said that, I’ve never been a big fan of air travel – and less so these days than I used to be. All that “security theatre” is just unnecessary palaver – how many terrorists has it actually caught? We certainly know it failed to catch two bombers… And while airlines seem to want us to believe that air travel has become easier and more convenient, the reverse is actually true. Also, budget airlines appear to hold their customers in complete contempt. They ask you to queue at the boarding-gate for an hour but don’t provide anywhere to sit. Aircraft are not buses – and given all the hoops passengers are forced to jump through before boarding at present, they never will be. The entire industry needs over-hauling.

Santa brought me some books and some DVDs: William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters and Tariq Ali’s Shadows Of The Pomegranate Tree, the first book of the Islam Quintet; and Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition, Fringe Season 3 and Caprica Season 1 Volume 2. I read the two books before returning to the UK. Of Men and Monsters was better than I expected, though I’m in two minds whether it belongs in the SF Masterwork series. Shadows Of The Pomegranate Tree is set in Moorish Spain in 1500 CE, and chronicles the Spanish Catholics’ campaign to wipe out Islam and its practitioners on the peninsula. It’s strong stuff, though Ali’s frequently inelegant prose didn’t do the book any favours. I’ll probably read the rest of the Quintet at some point, but I’m not going to dash out and buy them immediately.

I’ll also read a number of books during the holiday – in fact, I was averaging one a day. The books were Engleby, Sebastian Faulks (2007), which was a definite improvement on the longeur-packed On Green Dolphin Street. A working-class scholar at Oxford University fancies a female student from afar, but one day she disappears and is never found. It’s not difficult to work out what happened to her, though it’s hard to tell if Faulks thought the reveal was an actual plot twist. The final third of the book is a character-study of the narrator, which not only means Engleby is not a murder-mystery novel but also means it’s unsatisfactory as either murder-mystery or literary fiction.

The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry (2009), I remember seeing an approving review of in the Guardian by Michael Moorcock when the book was published. As a result, I’ve kept an eye open for a copy in charity shops ever since. It is… an odd beast. The story seems better-suited to a comic or graphic novel and, as a result, doesn’t work all that well as prose. A clerk for the Agency, a huge detective agency which seems to be the most important company in a 1950s-style city, is promoted to detective when the detective whose reports he files disappears. He soon ends up out of his depth in some weird conspiracy between the Agency and a villain based in a carnival, and it’s all to do with the way the Agency actually operates. The missing detective is called Travis S Sivart, but nothing is actually made of the fact that the name is a palindrome. It makes you wonder why the author bothered.

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006), is Mitchell’s fourth novel, and is told entirely in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy living in the eponymous Worcestershire village in 1982. He’s being bullied at school, his parents’ marriage is on the rocks, and an act of petty revenge leads to a tragedy. Everything in the book struck me as a little clichéd, but perhaps that’s because I remember the early eighties quite well. Mitchell handles his narrator’s voice with skill and it’s a very readable story, but it all felt a bit soap-opera-ish in places. It’s not as successful as Cloud Atlas, though it is better than his first two novels, Ghostwritten and number9dream.

Of course, in the weeks leading up to Christmas the postie was also busy. Since my last book haul post, the following books have landed on the mat:

These are the aforementioned Christmas goodies.

Some first editions: White Eagle Over Serbia is for the Lawrence Durrell collection. The Dragons of Springplace and Impact Parameter I bought in the recent Golden Gryphon 50% off sale.

A few sf paperbacks. I used to correspond with Mike Shupp, and I’ve always wanted to read his Destiny Makers quintet, but it’s taken me a while to find decent copies. Now that I have the first book in the series, With Fate Conspire, I can make a start, although I still need to find a copy of the third book, Soldier of Another Fortune. Eye of Terror is Barrington Bayley’s only Warhammer 40K novel, and by all accounts is especially mad – even for him. The Chessmen of Mars almost completes my set of 1970s NEL editions of the John Carter books – because, of course, I have to have a set that all looks the same, and the ones I already had were NEL paperbacks from the 1970s. City of Pearl is November’s belated read for the reading challenge. I doubt I’ll read it before the end of the year, but never mind.

My father owned quite a large collection of Penguin paperbacks. I found an invoice in one, and discovered that he’d actually ordered them direct from the publisher. This was back in the mid-1960s. Though he read and admired all the Penguin books he bought, for the past few decades his reading had mostly been thrillers. Some of his books I want to read myself so I’ve started bringing them home a few at a time, and so… Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, a short story collection by Malcolm Lowry; Clock Without Hands, The Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, all by Carson McCullers; Albert Camus’ The Plague; Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister; and The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner.

The Revenge for Love and Radon Daughters I found in charity shops. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a swap from readitswapit.co.uk. With Luck Lasting is Bernard Spencer’s second poetry collection, and while it’s an ex-library book it’s in excellent condition and doesn’t appear to have ever been booked out.

Finally, two books for the space books collection. Falling to Earth is the autobiography of Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden. It’s signed. The Story of Manned Space Stations was ridiculously cheap on eBay – about £3.50 compared to £18.99 on Amazon.